Kilchoman Distillery: Melding Tradition and Craftsmanship in Every Drop of Islay Whisky
Kilchoman Distillery: A Deep Dive into Islay’s Young Prodigy
From the rugged, wind-lashed coastlines of Islay springs forth a distillery that, while a newcomer in terms of Scotch whisky history, has stamped its firm footprint on the peaty soils of this iconic whisky-producing island. Welcome to Kilchoman (pronounced as /Kill-HOE-men/).
The Dawn of Kilchoman
The year 2005 marked a significant milestone in the whisky world, not because of some aged bottle being discovered or an auction breaking records. Instead, it was the birth of Kilchoman, the first distillery to be built on Islay in over 124 years. With a vision rooted deeply in traditions, Kilchoman dared to be different in an industry where age often counts for prestige.
Farm to Bottle: The Kilchoman Way
A defining characteristic of Kilchoman is its farm-to-bottle approach. Every step, from cultivating barley to bottling the golden spirit, occurs on the Isle of Islay, offering a pure, undiluted sense of place with each sip.
The Art of Floor Malting
In a modern world filled with automation, Kilchoman’s commitment to floor malting is akin to a painter choosing brushes over digital art – it’s all about the touch, the feel, and the tradition.
Floor malting is more than just an age-old practice; it’s an art form. After the barley is soaked, it’s spread across concrete floors, allowing it to germinate. This germination process unlocks the sugars that will later be transformed into alcohol. And like a guardian watching over a precious treasure, the barley is turned manually every eight hours.
Picture this: In bygone days, malt men would toil away, their shovels rhythmically turning the grain. Over time, this relentless manual labour led to a distinctive physical condition dubbed the “Monkey Shoulder.” And if you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the blended Scotch whisky by that name, now you know.
Floor malting might not win any awards for efficiency, especially when juxtaposed against the backdrop of high-tech distilleries. But it wins hearts. A handful of distilleries, including revered names like Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Highland Park, join Kilchoman in this dance with tradition. And the whisky they produce? It’s a testament to their belief in this practice.
The Kilchoman Philosophy: A Mirror to Islay
Kilchoman’s soul isn’t just in its whisky; it’s in its ethos. The distillery’s focus isn’t on mass production but on capturing the very essence of Islay – wild, untamed, yet comforting. Whether it’s the peated expressions that tell tales of Islay’s landscapes or the maritime hints that speak of its shores, Kilchoman is a love letter to its home.
While some distilleries boast of centennial histories, Kilchoman shows that passion, respect for tradition, and an unwavering commitment to quality can quickly carve out a place among giants.
Delving Deeper: Kilchoman’s Core Range
A Taste of Kilchoman: Sanaig
Sanaig, a Non-Age Statement (NAS) expression, intrigues with its finishing in Oloroso sherry casks. Imagine a harmonious play between citrus fruit and earthy undertones. Then, introduce a touch of salt, reminiscent of Islay’s bracing sea air. As the journey continues, the sweet, smoky finish emerges, painting a picture of succulent meats fresh off a summer barbecue.
This lovely and meaty whisky offers a dynamic interplay of citrus, salt, and deep caramel notes, with a peat backbone. Matured in sherry barrels, its complex profile justifies its premium tag. A limited-edition masterpiece, an experience of Islay’s spirit.
Nose: Citrus, plum jam, and dense peat merge with caramelized sherry undertones. Floral and medicinal hints add complexity.
Palate: Vibrant salt and citrus dominate, flanked by biscuity malt and a subtle creamy texture, offset by peaty brine.
Finish: Lingering smoke, earth, and malt harmonize for an elegant conclusion.
Texture: Smooth, slightly viscous, revealing layered whisky nuances.
Whisky Production at Kilchoman: A Symphony of Tradition and Precision
As mentioned, Kilchoman is one of the few distilleries to use traditional floor malting. The barley is soaked in water to begin germination, then spread across the malting floor. Here, the barley germinates, converting starches into fermentable sugars. This process is labor-intensive, with the barley being turned manually to ensure even germination.
Once malted, the barley is ground into a coarse powder known as grist. This grist is then mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. Typically, water is added in three stages, each at increasing temperatures, to extract the fermentable sugars. The liquid extracted from this process, rich in sugars, is called the wort.
The wort is transferred to large vessels, often made of wood or stainless steel, known as washbacks. Here, yeast is added, and fermentation begins. Yeast consumes the sugars in the wort, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. This fermentation process can last several days and results in a liquid called the “wash,” which is essentially a type of beer with an alcohol content of around 7-8%.
Kilchoman, like other Scotch whisky producers, employs a two-step distillation process using copper pot stills.
- First Distillation (Wash Still): The wash is heated in the wash still. As it heats, alcohol and other volatile compounds evaporate, then condense to form a liquid called “low wines.” Non-volatile impurities remain behind and are discarded.
- Second Distillation (Spirit Still): The low wines undergo a second distillation in the spirit still. The distiller separates the run into three parts: the foreshots (initial impure alcohols), the heart (the primary spirit intended for maturation), and the feints (late impurities). Only the heart, with the desired flavor profile and alcohol content, progresses to the maturation stage.
The heart of the distillate, now known as “new make spirit,” is transferred to oak casks for aging. Kilchoman uses a variety of casks, including ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry butts, to impart distinct flavors to the whisky. Over time, the spirit interacts with the wood, drawing out flavors and developing complexity.
After maturing for a specified duration, the whisky is often filtered and diluted to the desired bottling strength using pure water. It’s then bottled and labeled, ready for whisky enthusiasts worldwide.